No matter how hard farming might be, they won’t be cowed
Black farmers extol their work, but warn that it takes cash, time and more sweat than you’d imagine
It took Lesedi and Kenneth Mofokeng 10 years to save up enough to buy a piece of land – and by the time they were finally ready to see their dream through, they realised it wouldn’t be enough.
But now the couple owns a 450ha animal-husbandry farm in Deneysville in Gauteng’s Vaal area, thanks to funding secured three years ago from the Land Bank to support black commercial farmers.
Kenneth describes farming as 50% effort and 50% God’s grace.
“It’s not an easily controllable or predictable thing. It’s not like buying 10 pieces of chicken, putting them in the refrigerator, and finding them there when you open it tomorrow,” he told Times Select.
For two consecutive years “we lost cows due to pneumonic pasteurella”.
“This year alone we lost about 40 cows within a period of two weeks. We called the veterinarian in: he diagnosed, prescribed and did his best, but they still died.
“You don’t rely on what you see. Sometimes you have 100 calves and you tell yourself, out of this 100, this is how much money I will make, how much I will spend on feed … and then pneumonia comes and kills half. So you lose calves, money buying medication, and you probably still owe the bank. Unpredictable,” said Kenneth.
He believes that many prospective farmers do not really understand what commercial farming is.
“The challenge with black people is that they don’t know what commercial farming entails. It is expensive, but you need to learn how to reduce costs by producing your own feed, and that is the most difficult part. Without access to land, funds, and skills development – when people are given a farm they should be given training; it is hard to achieve anything in farming,” Kenneth said.
Lesedi said it was important to surround yourself with supportive friends and family.
“It’s emotionally, financially and physically straining. You will have sleepless nights, literally, you will hear of people who have committed suicide because of the stress: but there is nothing more fulfilling than watching your animals grow, to a point where it hurts to sell,” she said.
Lesedi said the farming community had been very supportive towards them.
“When you ask for help, you receive it. Our neighbours are always watching our back. If there’s a crop fire, they come running with water,” she said.
Kenneth said that, beyond the logistics, they owed their success to their employees.
“They understand that they are co-partners and family. We reward effort. We treat them like nannies; if they are happy, the children will be happy.”
The previous year “we had success because we gave them targets and rewarded them with a cow”.
“If there’s a loss, it’s a loss for all of us. We try to be as transparent as we can; they know the input cost and output,” said Kenneth.
He said young people did not take farming seriously as a profession.
“It’s not cool or fashionable. If it was advertised as a viable career like being a doctor or lawyer was, I am sure we would have seen interest. Some of the fashionable careers like engineering also require you to get dirty, so what’s different about farming?”
From experience, he did not realise the importance of working the land until later in life, even though his father had a farm.
“I went and practised to be a quantity surveyor, but you can’t go wrong with a piece of land, you always have liquid assets that you can sell. Growing up on a farm, a white child gets exposed to the practicality of farming, the parents are good at encouraging and nurturing interest. They take them to the fields, auctions, so by the time they go to institutions of learning, they enhance their knowledge and get to learn the theory around pH levels, temperatures and such.
“It’s not a black-white thing, but a matter of upbringing.”
The couple’s dream is to be “mega farmers”. Currently they employ 10 people and breed with Brahman, Bonsmara, and Simbra calves. They have more than 500 cows. They also want to venture into rabbit farming, sheep and beekeeping.
The farm supplies Karan Beef, Sparta butcheries, and local chesanyamas.
Bokamoso Moilwa, the farm manager, said: “We fail to work together as black people. White people are organised, they buy from their fellow men. There is money in the hands of black people but they would rather spend it in town than buy from their neighbour.”As part of its effort to increase participation in the agricultural sector by historically disadvantaged individuals and contribute to land reform, the Land Bank will escalate its support to the emerging sector by increasing the disbursements for transformative initiatives to R3bn during the current financial year.Land Bank spokesperson Sydney Soundy said the aim was to get emerging players involved in the industry.
“We are mostly looking at those who have been historically challenged: female, youth, black, coloured or Indian. Most aspiring farmers approach us with their business ideas and we sit down with them and see how we can help. They typically have specific challenges, so it’s a case-to-case matter. This can be through training and skills development; we liberate funds in a form of blended finance: loans or grants.
“We build a partnership between emerging and established farmers, that way the support can continue. We also give shareholding opportunities to farm workers,” Soundy said.